“Less is more”
These words of Robert Browning from Andrew del Sarto, was aphorised by Ludwig Mies van der rohe, also known as the father of minimalist architecture in the modern Times.
Ludwig Mies was born in the ancient city of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) on 27th March 1886. He later took his mother’s maiden name Rohe as he rose to prominence in the architecture community.
Mies learned the possibilities and limitations of masonry construction from his father, who was a master mason and proprietor of a small stone-cutting shop. When he was 19, he moved Berlin to learn more about wood construction techniques and became an apprentice to a leading furniture and cabinet designer Bruno Paul.
From 1908 to 1911 he worked for Peter Behrens, a German architect who was one of the important figures in the modernist movement along with Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mies (all of them who worked with him in the initial stages of their career).
In 1913, Mies started his own firm in Berlin, launching his career as an independent architect. Urbig House, constructed in 1917, in Potsdam, Germany, was a traditional hipped roof house with five dormer windows.
In 1921, he proposed the design of Friedrichstrasse office building, ignoring several rules of the competition guidelines and presented radical concept to the committee: a skyscraper made entirely of glass and steel. Even though it didn’t win or was unrealised, it is considered as one of the important designs of the 20th century Architecture.
Five of his works, including the Friedrichstrasse building, the glass skyscraper proposal of 1922, the concrete office building (1922) ,the concrete country house (1923), and the brick country House (1924), established him as as a pioneer in Modern Architecture of the 20s. He developed his style by using minimal intersecting planes by merging the interior and exterior with extensive use of glass.
Photo Creadit: Mies van der Rohe with smoke, 1957; photographed for Life magazine. Image Courtesy of Frank Scherschel/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
In 1926 he became the first Vice President of Deutsche Werkbund, an organisation founded by industrialists and architects to improve German architecture and design. He designed the German Pavilion and the chair along with Lilly Reich for the International Exposition at Barcelona in 1929, which is one of the iconic works from Mies’ oeuvre.
Following the resignation of Hannes Meyer in 1930, he became the director of Bauhaus- the school founded by Walter Gropius. The International Style was born at the Modern Architecture International Exhibition curated by Philip Johnson and Henry- Russell Hitchcock at the Museum of Modern Art that presented the works of Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies van Rohe and J.J.P. Oud under the section of Modern Architects.
After The Bauhaus was shut down in 1932 due to the Nazi Regime, Mies eventually emigrated to the US in 1938 to head the Armour Institute, which later became the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Mies didn’t receive wide public recognition in the US until he was over 50 years old.
At IIT, he designed several individual buildings and a comprehensive campus plan that was dominated by structural clarity.
During his stint at the IIT for 20 years, he founded the second Chicago school of architecture that was characterised by focus on the structure and aesthetic minimalism. The buildings had simplified style and open rectilinear plans with high-rise, such as the 860-880 Lakeshore Drive.
Between 1945 to1951, he built a house with two parallel planes suspended in the air, held only by eight steel columns for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, made entirely of glass. The Farnsworth House remains as one of the most famous modernist architectural masterpieces even today.
By mid 1950s, Mies became the most influential architect in the United States.
He designed the Seagram building with Philip Johnson in 1958, The Seagram tower stands as an international style skyscraper in the middle of New York skyline.
The Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Germany was the fines and the last major construction of Mies where his ideology of ‘Less is more’ takes its true sense.
According to Alden Whitman, the buildings reflected the man, for Mies was fussy about himself.
“A large, lusty man with a massive head topping a 5-foot, 10-inch frame, he dressed in exquisitely hand-stitched suits of conservative hue, dined extravagantly well on haute cuisine, sipped the correct wines from the proper goblets, and chained-smoked hand-rolled cigars.
For a man so modern in his conceptions, he had more than a touch of old-fashionedness. It showed up in such things as the gold chain across his waistcoat, to which was attached his pocket timepiece. Rather than live in a contemporary building or one of his own houses–he briefly contemplated moving to a Mies apartment but feared fellow tenants might badger him–he made his home in a high-ceilinged, five-room suite on the third floor of an old-fashioned apartment house on Chicago’s North Side. The thick-walled rooms were large and they included, predictably, a full kitchen with an ancient gas range for his cook.
The apartment contained armless chairs and furniture of his own designs as well as sofas and wing chairs–in which he preferred to sit. The walls were stark white; but the apartment had a glowing warmth, given off by the Klees, Braques and Schwitterses that dotted its walls.
As a teacher Mies did not deliver formal lectures, but worked, seminar fashion, with groups of 10 or 12 students. His method of teaching, according to a former student, was “almost tacit.” “He was never wildly physically active, and he did not do much talking,” this student recalled, adding that Mies, sitting Buddha-like, would frequently puff through a whole cigar before commenting on a student sketch.
Mies was well-to-do, but not wealthy. He received the usual architect’s fee of 6 per cent of the gross cost of a building, but he was not a very careful manager of his income, according to his friends. He was considered generous with his office staff and on spending for designs that were unlikely to see the light of day”.**
Having transformed the world of Architecture, Mies died on the 17th of August, 1969 leaving a legacy behind.
- ** Excerpt from the 1969 NY Times article by Alder Whitman
- Mies Van Der Rohe Society at IIT
- Archives of MoMA
Srinidhi Sugumar is an Architect currently working in Bangalore and pursuing her dream to write.